Originally published in the Hannibal Courier-Post Feb. 23, 1980
By Mary Lou Montgomery
Harry Carstarphen, a local attorney, was a schoolboy in New London, Mo., during 1900 and remembers witnessing one of the most publicized events ever to be held in the Ralls County Courthouse.
It was the murder trial of Alexander Jester, alias William A. Hill, who was charged with the murder of a young man named Gates. The murder occurred in the late 1850s, or the “Gold Rush Era,” Carstarphen remembers, and Jester was finally brought to trial when he was in his 80s.
The 49ers were young men of the decade who decided to go west to California in search of gold in the mountains. They traveled by covered wagons drawn by oxen or horses, and many young men pursued the heroic endeavor. Alexander Jester was reportedly one of the 49ers.
The murder in question was alleged to have occurred on Salt River Ford in Monroe County where the trail crossed Salt River, Carstarphen says. Jester was arrested for the murder in Indiana and brought back to Monroe County for trial. He escaped, however, before the trial began.
The murder victim was the younger brother of a Chicago citizen who thereafter became known as “Bet a Million Gates.” The elder Gates was a prosperous man who searched unsuccessfully for Jester more than 40 years. Jester, then using the name of Hill, signed up for a land drawing during the Oklahoma land rush, when the government surveyed the Indian Territory land and provided for deeding the land in a drawing. Carstarphen recalls that his uncle, Thomas Carstarphen, also participated in the drawing.
Jester went to the drawing but thereafter fell out with his sister. The sister later identified him to “Bet a Million Gates” who then located him and arranged to have him arrested and returned to Monroe County for trial. The case was later moved to Ralls County, where the trial lasted from July 9 to Aug. 1, 1900 – 40 years after the murder.
Criminal lawyers came from Chicago to prosecute Jester. The jail and court house in Ralls County were only a block from the school and the students attended the trial.
The prosecuting attorney for Ralls County was J.W. Hays, who later practiced in Hannibal. He and the Chicago lawyers prosecuted the case with local defense lawyers P.H. Cullen and J.S. McIntyre.
Carstarphen describes Jester as a man over 6 feet tall who wore a white beard which extended down to his waistline, and he was bent forward with age. The sheriff, the father of Judge Harry Weaver, and Landale Wittamore escorted him back and forth from the court to the jail and back. The Ralls County Record reveals that there were 80 jurors called in for qualification and the 12 selected are the great-grandfathers of hundreds of residents now in the area.
The jurors were: Henry W. Bramblett, John T. Elzea, John Northcutt, J.E. Willis, Joseph F. Barry, who was the foreman, C.A. Jones, Henry L. Leake, Porter S. Fischer, James W. Phillips, Alfred W. Menefee, H.L. Jarman and Berry W. Saunders.
The three-week trial ended with the jury’s verdict of not guilty.